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close this bookThe Improvement of Tropical and Subtropical Rangelands (BOSTID)
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In this report, rangelands are defined as "land carrying natural or semi-natural vegetation which provides a habitat suitable for herds of wild or domestic ungulates" (Pratt, Greenway, and Gwynne, 1966). Rangelands typically possess characteristics that make them unsuitable for agriculture or intensive forestry: they are variously too dry, too steep, too rocky, poorly drained, or too remote. In Africa, the Near East, and southern Asia - the geographical focus of this report - rangelands occupy 2,666 million hectares, or 53 percent of the land surface (table 1).

In the areas considered, there are two general systems of rangeland utilization: systems that use the land to produce goods that are removed or exported from the land (ranches), and those that chiefly provide subsistence for people associated with livestock and wildlife populations (indigenous pastoral systems). Contrary to popular belief in industrial nations, pastoral systems are not necessarily less productive than ranching systems. African pastoral systems, for example, are often as productive as market-oriented ranching systems in comparable areas in terms of protein produced per unit of land utilized.

Table 1 Distribution of the World's Pastures and Rangelands, 1955-83

Most ranches are privately owned, and characteristically use investments of capital and various management techniques on large areas of land to increase livestock production. Unlike pastoral systems, labor inputs are low. Hence, ranching often produces more protein per hour of labor than does pastoralism. On the other hand, ranching requires vastly greater inputs of energy, and expenses incurred in connection with fencing, water development, brush control, revegetation, grazing management, and selective breeding are substantial.

Pastoral systems represent the principal form of rangeland utilization in Africa and Asia. They involve significant social adaptations to the movement of livestock or wildlife from one location to another in relation to the availability of forage and water. The rangelands utilized are seldom privately owned, and mechanical and chemical inputs are seldom prominent. The systems are labor intensive. It has been estimated that livestock and wildlife support some 30-40 million pastoralists, and the animals and animal products associated with pastoral systems are critical to millions of other individuals in settled communities (International Institute for Environment and Development and the World Resources Institute, 1987).

The importance of livestock in pastoral systems exceeds their value as sources of milk, meat, blood, and hides. Livestock often represent a means of accumulating capital and, in some societies, are associated with social status. They are assets that can reproduce and that can be liquidated should cash be required. In addition to supporting livestock, rangelands serve as sources of other significant economic products: bushmeat, fruits, berries, nuts, leaves, flowers, tubers, and other food for human populations, as well as medicinal plants, building materials, thatch, fencing, gums, tannin, incense, and other products important to the economies of rural populations (Sale, 1981; National Research Council, 1983; Malhotra, Khomne, and Gadgil, 1983).

The importance of rangelands as sources of bushmeat and vegetable foods for human populations deserves special attention. These foods are derived from species that are well adapted to the environmental peculiarities of the regions in which they are found. Hence, such foods are often available in the event of crop failure or substantial losses of livestock. Even during periods with average rainfall, satisfactory crop yields, and herd stability, such foods constituted a significant part of local diets. Indeed, in many societies, the offtake of wildlife from rangelands exceeds that of livestock in importance. In 1959, for example, the sedentary and pastoral peoples of the Senegal River Valley in West Africa relied upon fish and wildlife for over 85 percent of the meat that they consumed (Cremoux, 1963); native plants were of equal or greater importance. Since that time, widespread environmental degradation has dramatically reduced the availability of the natural products associated with local coping strategies and has correspondingly increased the vulnerability of rural populations (National Research Council, 1983). In most instances, the degradation is a result of breakdowns in the traditional resource management systems that for centuries had maintained an equilibrium between environmental systems and human activity (National Research Council, 1986).

TABLE 2 Cattle Populations in the West African Sahel

TABLE 2 Cattle Populations in the West African Sahel

Number of Cattle (in thousands)


















































SOURCES: Gallais, 1979; Africa South of the Sahara 1986 1985; and Africa

South of the Sahara 1988 1987.

Rangeland ecosystems, particularly those in arid and semiarid regions, are highly susceptible to degradation. In many regions, degradation is chiefly a result of changing herd composition and overstocking. Particularly noteworthy since the advent of the colonial period has been a proportional shift in herd inventories favoring cattle, a form of livestock poorly adapted to dryland ecosystems, at the expense of well-adapted and less environmentally destructive forms, such as camels, as the former were more marketable within the context of the new economic order (Chassey, 1978). In the West African Sahel, for example, colonial policy resulted in an almost fivefold increase in cattle populations between 1940 and 1968 (table 2).

Agricultural expansion has also contributed to the degradation of tropical and subtropical rangelands. In drylands, agricultural expansion results in increased pressure on rangelands because the conversion of the more productive forage reserves to crop land forces pastoralists to "overgraze" the remaining land base (Thomas, 1980).

Moreover, grain crops deplete soil nutrients at a rate thirty times greater than the rate of nutrient loss in a properly stocked range ecosystem (Heady, 1975). The cost of replacing the lost phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, and other nutrients is generally prohibitive.

In many regions, high levels of sustained use pressure have eliminated the more palatable plant species (species referred to as "decreasers" in range science). In dryland ecosystems, plant growth is relatively slow. When aerial biomass is consumed by foraging livestock, many plants respond by transferring nutrients from their roots in order to produce new leaves. This results in reduced rooting. Reduced rooting, in turn, reduces the ability of the plant to absorb moisture and nutrients even during rains. As the more palatable species are weakened, less palatable species ("increasers") become dominant. With continuing high levels of use pressure, increasers give way to undesirable shrubs, grasses, and forbs ("invaders"). As these species are overgrazed, the land surface is exposed to further, more severe, degradation. In the drylands of Africa and Asia, cattle have been particularly destructive. Unlike camels and goats and most native herbivores, which are predominantly browsers, cattle are grazers. Cattle therefore increase pressure upon perennial grasses and often eliminate them, causing ecological deflections toward ephemeral annual grasses and relatively unproductive trees and shrubs, such as Calotropis procera (Gaston and Dulieu, 1976).

The reduction or elimination of vegetative cover, in combination with trampling and the compaction of the surface by livestock, reduces infiltration and permits the mobilization of soil particles subject to transport by overland flow. This results in depressed groundwater tables and increased soil erosion. Surface exposure and the reduced organic content of soils also result in altered soil-water relationships and greater amplitude in soil temperatures. This altered soil ecology adversely affects important soil microorganisms, such as the rhizobial bacteria responsible for nitrogen fixation in acacias and other leguminous genera. This, in turn, affects nutrient regimes and results in a further loss of soil structure. Altered soil ecology directly eliminates additional plant species and frustrates regenerative processes in others. Further losses occur through disruptions in various biological dependency and affinity relationships. Environmental degradation both reduces range carrying capacity for livestock and affects wildlife populations through habitat modification. Rangeland conditions in selected countries of Africa, Asia, and Western Asia are described in tables 3, 4, and 5.

Table 3 Rangelands Conditions in Selected African Countries

Table 3 Rangelands Conditions in Selected African Countries - continue 1

Table 3 Rangelands Conditions in Selected African Countries - continue 2

Table 3 Rangelands Conditions in Selected African Countries - continue 3

Table 4 Rangeland Conditions in Selected Western Asian Countries

Table 4 Rangeland Conditions in Selected Western Asian Countries - continue 1

Table 4 Rangeland Conditions in Selected Western Asian Countries - continue 2

Table 4 Rangeland Conditions in Selected Western Asian Countries - continue 3

Table 5 Rangeland conditions in selected Asian countries

Table 5 Rangeland conditions in selected Asian countries - continue 1

The effects of rangeland degradation often extend well beyond the rangelands themselves. Dust originating in degraded rangelands is transported by dry-season winds to distant areas, causing annoyance, health hazards, and costly interruptions in air and ground traffic. The rapid release of runoff in degraded rangelands following rains contributes greatly to destructive flooding in downstream lowlands, and sediment entering drainage systems in degraded rangelands shortens the useful life of reservoirs and irrigation systems.

Less obvious effects would include the impact of rangeland devegetation on climatic regimes. For example, it is now widely believed that precipitation is strongly influenced by biogeophysical feedback mechanisms (Charney, 1975). According to this hypothesis, drought is reinforced through changes in vegetative cover. Large-scale losses of vegetation would increase surface albedo, which, in turn, would affect the atmospheric energy budget in such a way that the subsidence, which promotes aridity, would be intensified.

Further, it is now believed that levels of precipitation are strongly influenced by soil moisture locally released into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Hence, reduced vegetative cover and decreased soil moisture would result in reduced local precipitation. Finally, losses of vegetation affect surface roughness in the atmospheric boundary layer. Surface roughness contributes to the destabilization of moisture-laden air masses, thus encouraging precipitation. Devegetation also reduces carbon dioxide uptake in the planetary biomass. The greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes to global warming, causing changes in atmospheric circulation and rising sea levels through the melting of continental ice sheets (Study of Man's Impact on Climate, 1971; Woodwell, 1984).

The science of range management originated in North America, and North American approaches to range management are described in several wellknown volumes, such as A. W. Sampson (1952), Stoddart and Smith (1955), R. R. Humphrey (1962), and National Research Council (1962, 1984). Historically, attempts to transfer experience gained in the management of North American or Europe an rangelands to the management of tropical and subtropical rangelands have been unsuccessful (Heady and Heady, 1982). In improving tropical and subtropical rangelands, it is important to carefully characterize the physical system being managed in order to better understand the biological potential of the system and assure that critical ecological processes are restored and maintained. It is equally important to relate efforts in range improvement to the needs,

knowledge, adaptations, and capabilities of local populations, as well as to the broader economic and political contexts of such efforts. The widespread belief that pastoral systems are simply artifacts of the past requires reexamination. The view that range improvement in the tropics and subtropics should focus narrowly upon the increased per unit productivity of selected forms of livestock, usually cattle, at the expense of the biological diversity basic to the maintenance of local coping strategies and economies should similarly be reexamined. This report describes tropical and subtropical rangelands, addresses issues of socioeconomic context, discusses approaches to regional assessment and site evaluation, explores management strategies, and provides criteria for plant selection in relation to efforts in range improvement. The case studies appended to the report provide further information regarding these issues. The Improvement of Tropical and Subtropical Rangelands is the third report to appear in the series, "Resource Management for Arid and Semiarid Regions." Other titles include Environmental Change in the West African Sahel (1983) and Agroforestry in the West African Sahel (1983).


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Africa South of the Sahara 1988. 1987. 17th ed. Europa Publications, London, England.

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Chassey, F. de. 1978. La Mauritanic - 1900-1975. Editions Anthropos, Paris, France.

Cremoux, P. 1963. The importance of game-mest consumption in the diet of sedentary and nomadic peoples of the Senegal River Valley. Pp. 127129 in Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Modern African States. IUCN Publications New Series, no. 1. International Union {or the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Morges, Switzerland.

Gallais, J. 1979. La situation de l'vage bovin et le probl des veurs en Afrique occidentale et centrale. Les Cahiera d'Outre-Mer 32(126):113-138.

Gaston, A. and D. Dulieu. 1976. Prages du Kanem. Institut d'evage et de Mcine Vrinaire des Pays Tropicaux, Maisone-Alfort, France.

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National Research Council. 1984. Developing Strategies for Rangeland Management. Board on Agriculture and Renewable Resources. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, USA.

National Research Council. 1986. Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource Management. Board on Science and Technology for International Development. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

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Sale, J. B. 1981. The Importance and Values of Wild Plants and Animals in Africa. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Gland, Switzerland.

Sampson, A. W. 1952. Range Management Principles and Practices. John Wiley and Sons, New York, New York, USA.

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Thomas, G. W. 1980. The Sahelian/Sudanian Zones of Africa. Profile of a Fragile Environment Report to the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller Foundation, New York, New York, USA.

Woodwell, G. M., ed. 1984. The Role of Terrestrial Vegetation in the Global Carbon Cycle. SCOPE 23. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, England.

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World Resources Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development. 1988. World Resources 1988-89. Basic Books, New York, New York, USA.